The Wines of Greece

By: Tim Ellison

A lot of people think the French invented wine. They certainly do a good job, but they don’t have a lock on great wine. The Greeks have a few thousand years head start and a long history of making exciting wines from some of the over 300 Indigenous grape varieties native to that country. You have possibly never even heard of many of these varieties. Studies by the German Research Centre for Cultivated Plants have proven that these grapes are rich in tannins and phenolic compounds. This results in wines that are flavourful and have serious ageing potential. As far back as the 17th century B.C., the likes of Aristotle were employing the skills of Oenochooi (ancient Greek ‘sommeliers’) to lubricate the intellectual discussions of the Symposia.

There has been a tremendous upswing in the quality of Greek wines over the past ten years or so. Improvements in production techniques, site selection, and yield management from new and old winemakers are resulting in delicious and unique wines that your customers will love.

There are a few key grape varieties leading the quality charge in Greece right now. For whites look for Moschofilero, Assyrtiko, and Robola. Red examples include Xinomavro, Limnio, and Agiorgitiko.

Hailing from the Peloponnese Peninsula, Moschofilero gives a delicate floral wine similar to Pinot Grigio. For people looking for a soft and easy drinking white this is a great choice.

A little more serious whites are produced from Assyrtiko. Thought to originally come from the island of Santorini, this ancient variety is produced in a variety of expressions from dry to sweet. But it is the dry wines from the old bush vines trained in the ‘Kouloura’ style (basket vines) of that island that result in the most exciting wines. The moon-like, dry sandy soils have resisted phylloxera and now boast vines 150+ years old on original Vinifera rootstock. The low yields create wines high in acid and rich in phenolics. Experiments with things like underwater ageing and sparkling expressions are creating real interest in the sommelier community.

The ancient variety, Robola, finds it home in Cephalonia. The high altitude and limestone rich vineyards are developing bright and fresh wines featuring aromatic notes of fresh citrus. The smoky minerality found on the palate is often compared to Chablis.

A Greek white (and sometimes rosé) wine that has some notoriety is Retsina, which is not a grape but a style. It is often made from Savatiano with Assyrtiko and Rhoditis blended in and by either sealing clay amphorae storage vessels with pine resin or actually adding small amounts of resin to the fermenting must. The resin is sourced from the mountains of Aleppo and it is said that the high-altitude resins are superior to the resin sourced from lower down the slopes. The Roman writer, Columella, advised avoiding the use of resin and this was echoed by Pliny the Elder who was also resistant to its inclusion in quality wines. Having sampled this traditional wine from Greece personally, I have to concur with their sentiments.

The red wines of Greece are also not to be missed.

Xinomavro (translated as ‘sour black’) is heralded by Greek Master of Wine, Yannis Karakasis, as one of the greatest rising stars on the Greek wine scene. The best examples of this full bodied, complex, and graceful red hail from the uplands of Naousa. It has been an established PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) since 1971. The high acid, high alcohol wines feature firm tannins and are at once agreeable but can be delicious in their youth especially with traditional Greek dishes like roast lamb.

On the lighter side, Limnio produces wines that have been likened to Pinot Noir. The grape produces wines that echo Nebbiolo with their silky tannins, firm acid, and hints of red berries and dried herbs. Unfortunately, traditionally low yields resulted in the grubbing up of these vines for more productive varieties. Now, in regions like Mt. Athos, elegant dry reds are being made in a vibrant style employing exclusively stainless steel, however, oaked versions are gaining traction.

One of my personal favourites is Agiorgitiko, which is the most widely planted red variety in Greece today. It is often referred to as the ‘Blood of Hercules’ as it is said he fortified his courage with it before slaying the lion. The quality and flavours vary from soft and fruity Beaujolais-like wines, produced using carbonic maceration, to tannic and spicy versions that may even be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and are aged in oak. Some of the best examples hail from Nemea on the Peloponnese Peninsula, where poor soils high in lime content yield a wine with low to medium acid, firm tannins, and plum and notes of spice.

The wines can be hard to find and very few are available in the government liquor stores so talk to your reps about the Greek wines in their portfolios. This is a great way to create some excitement for your staff and guests alike by offering these delicious wines with a storied past. They are fantastic on their own and great with food. As they are less known, there is tremendous value to be had.

Everything old is new again and Greek wines are no exception. Discover why these wines have stood the test of time and delight your guests with these gems. They will come back for more. After all, who doesn’t want to be in the company of the likes of Aristotle, Odysseus, and Hercules.

Tim Ellison is a Certified Sommelier and Chef de Cuisine working currently as Director of Sales at the prestigious Vancouver Club.